Pacifico 8-Ball Kayak Sprint, the ‘gladiator’ event of water sports
Photo: Dan Davis

Pacifico 8-Ball Kayak Sprint, the ‘gladiator’ event of water sports

Posted by: Shauna Farnell

All hail the mysterious and potentially sinister Pacifico 8-ball Kayak Sprint at the GoPro Mountain Games

Kayaking is not typically a contact sport unless you’re talking about the Pacifico 8-Ball Kayak Sprint. The long-standing, one-of-a-kind event is one of the GoPro Mountain Games’ most reliably enthralling competitions for both competitors and spectators in Vail, Colorado. Unlike boatercross, in which a slew of athletes sprint to the finish line en masse and try to avoid contact, the 8-Ball Sprint is notably more gladiator-esque.

Here, the race begins at Vail’s Covered Bridge. And yes, each sprinter is simply trying to be the fastest to reach the finish line, 200 meters downriver. However, there are ominous obstacles in play. Enter the 8-Ballers – the beastly, merciless boaters who pop up from the banks of Gore Creek and do their best to shut down the sprinter’s forward progress.

“The spectators are looking for a show and the kayakers are in full-on survival mode,” explains Mountain Games veteran and multi-time 8-Ball champion Emily Jackson. “It is a bit of a gladiator-style event, where you will get banged and bruised regardless of skill level. The better the paddler you are, the more the 8-Balls get after you.”

Not unlike a scene from the ancient Roman Empire — except with 8-Ballers playing the part of wild animals and the beautiful Colorado waters replacing colosseums — spectators line Gore Creek in Vail, cheering and jeering as kayak sprinters hang on for dear life through the foray of hard-charging obstacles.

Although both the attackers and sprinters must keep both hands on their paddles at all times and are instructed to be safety conscious, as is the nature of contact sports, things can get scrappy. In the 12-plus years that Jackson has competed in the event (missing only the two in which she was pregnant with her children), she’s sustained her fair share of hard slams and even taken a kayak or two to the face.

“Kayaks to the face suck,” she says. “One of the hardest ones was when an 8-Ball just never let up on me for the entire time and pushed me into the bushes. I think the most memorable are when it’s going really bad and then all of a sudden you get a window and paddle like hell.”

Got that, rookies? Paddle like hell.

In spite of the potential carnage involved, the surprise factor and allure of the unknown keeps battered veterans like Jackson coming back.

“This event is like gambling,” she says. “It’s fun because you have no clue. It’s very little skill-based. Endurance helps. I do it because the other events are all done and I enjoy every opportunity to go kayak.”

Spectators?  Mark your calendars. If there’s one event you don’t want to miss, this is it. The Pacifico 8-Ball Kayak Sprint goes down at 1 p.m. on June 11 on Gore Creek in Vail Village.

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